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Jamming camcorders in movie theaters

Former Divx engineers are developing a technology that could thwart low-tech movie pirates who use camcorders in theaters.

As one of the key architects of the discontinued Divx DVD system, Robert Schumann knows first hand how hard it can be to sell copyright protection to the masses.
Learn more about anti-piracy software

Still, some three years after Circuit City pulled financial support for the limited-use DVD technology he helped build, Schumann and a group of former Divx engineers are hoping for a second act in Hollywood with the advent of digital cinema.

Herndon, Va.-based Cinea, the company Schumann co-founded after Divx folded in 1999, is close to unveiling a beta for its Cosmos digital cinema security system that will help movie distributors keep track of how their products are used while protecting them from piracy.

Meanwhile, Cinea this week scored a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) Advanced Technology Program to develop a system that it claims will stop audience members from videotaping digital movies off theater screens.

The company "will modify the timing and modulation of the light used to create the displayed image such that frame-based capture by recording devices is distorted," according to an abstract for the winning NIST grant application. "Any copies made from these devices will show the disruptive pattern."

In an interview, Schumann compared the process with distortions that appear in videotaped images of computer screens, which may show lines that are invisible to the naked eye. Rather than produce accidental disturbances, he said, Cinea plans to create specific disturbances that it can control.

"Machines see the world more closely to reality than humans do. In the case of computer screens, if you track the energy from a phosphor coating (a light-emitting chemical used in cathode-ray tubes), you find that it begins with a strong burst followed by a period of decay and then another burst, and so on. But people see it as a single intensity," Schumann said.

Cinea, a privately held company with backing from Tysons Corner, Va.-based venture capital firm Monumental Venture Partners, expects to have a working prototype within two years. It is partnering with Princeton, N.J.-based Sarnoff, which will conduct research on image manipulation and analyze distortion and possible countermeasures. The University of Southern California's Entertainment Technology Center in Los Angeles will evaluate the system in testing with human subjects.

"There's a difference in the way a camcorder and the human eye see the world," Schumann said. "We've figured out some ways to exploit that. The trick is to make sure there is no negative impact on the viewing experience for the audience."

The camcorder-jamming project comes as directors, including "Star Wars" legend George Lucas, are creating movies designed for digital projection that aim to provide sharper and more astounding visual effects than traditional film. But the technology has raised concerns that audience members might eventually create high-quality copies of movies using handheld video cameras smuggled into theaters.

The movie industry already blames such techniques for rampant piracy of first-run films, which frequently appear in video on the streets following preview screenings and premieres, although the quality is usually low.

According to Cinea's grant abstract, the motion picture industry loses some $3 billion a year due to piracy, including the sale of illegal copies made using camcorders in theaters. The company predicted that its efforts could cut movie piracy by 50 percent.

That number may be high. Leaks from theaters frequently involve copies that are created in cooperation with insiders, rather than footage shot surreptitiously from the fifth row. Schumann conceded that the 50 percent number is not based on thorough market research but is simply "our own estimate."

In tackling anti-piracy technology, Cinea is entering an arena that is littered with failure.

The movie and music industries have sought for years to thwart piracy by developing anti-copying technology, an effort that has been redoubled with the emergence of digital media offering consumers the opportunity to make countless perfect copies from one original and to distribute them effortlessly over the Internet.

Most of those attempts have focused on encrypting or walling off the underlying data to make it unintelligible or inaccessible to would-be copiers. Such solutions have also quickly been broken.

The movie studios have been in search of a new DVD encryption scheme since the industry standard, known as CSS, was cracked by Linux programmers in 1999. The recording industry, meanwhile, was stymied last year in its bid to create a music copy protection system when academic researchers defeated a proposed watermarking standard.

Other encryption schemes, including one from Microsoft, have also been compromised.

From a business perspective, companies pursuing digital rights management (DRM) have hardly fared better.

The once-hot niche has been winnowed by bankruptcies and retrenchment. In the latest meltdown, online music technology provider Liquid Audio has been split by shareholder dissension as some investors seek to shut the company down and get their hands on millions in dwindling cash reserves.

Others that have run into trouble include Preview Systems, Intertrust and Reciprocal.

The body count hasn't deterred Schumann, however.

"Each company in this space has its own issues and its own reasons for succeeding or failing," he said.

He added that Cinea's strategy, which focuses on business-to-business rather than consumer products, puts it in a very different realm in the DRM market.

Schumann knows the sting of failure, having poured five years into the development of Divx only to see its primary backer and distributor, Circuit City, pull out.

Divx was a limited-use version of DVD that allowed viewers access to movies for 48 hours after the initial viewing period. After that, a customer was required to pay additional fees to view it again.

Circuit City eventually claimed some 200,000 Divx player sales, according to Cinea's Web site. Digital Video Express, a joint venture formed to market Divx, had just begun to sign up major manufacturers including Thomson Electronics and Kenwood when its majority partner threw in the towel.

After its short run, Divx became the butt of jokes among the computer cognoscenti, where copy protection schemes rank just above Microsoft's reputation for robust security on the laughability scale.

Underground programmers lampooned the technology in naming a popular video codec used to trade pirated video files after it. Divx;-) has since wiped the smirk off its face as its developers seek to turn the technology to legitimate uses under the auspices of digital video company DivXNetworks.

Schumann, who said he was serving on the Digital Video Express engineering team as Director of Strategic Technologies when the joint venture folded, laughed at the mention of the parody. But he brushed off criticism of the device as uninformed.

"The customers in the Divx days who used the system loved it," he said. "It created a better way to rent videos. I was sad to see it shut down. From my perspective, it was a great technology that didn't get great market support."